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Niebuhr, Reinhold


Protestant ethicist and educator; b. Wright City, MO, June 21, 1892; d. Stockbridge, MA, June 1, 1971. He was the son of Gustave and Lydia (Hosto) Niebuhr and elder brother of H. Richard Niebuhr. After attending Eden Theological Seminary, Webster Groves, MO, he went to Yale University and received the B.D. in 1914 and the M.A. in 1915. He was ordained in the Evangelical Synod Church and undertook pastoral duties in Detroit, MI. The struggles of the labor movement in Detroit came to Niebuhr's attention, and his involvement in them was the basis for his later work in Christian social ethics. In 1928, Niebuhr took an academic post at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and married Ursula Keppel-Compton in 1931.

At first an ardent pacifist, Niebuhr shared the optimism of the social gospel movementan optimism that had its secular counterpart in the thought of John Dewey. However, by 1932, with the publication of Moral Man and Immoral Society, he argued against the "Social Gospel" that the law of love would never lead to social perfection and against the disciples of Dewey that expertise should never replace wisdom. An adequate social ethic needed more than moral piety or scientific intelligence. This realization led Niebuhr to a renewed appreciation of some biblical themes which had been neglected by the regnant liberal theology. In particular Niebuhr emphasized the doctrine of original sin. Human pride is everywhere at work and especially in the political order with the temptations of power. He thus supported political policies that carefully delineate the limits of power. His works include Does Civilization Need Religion? (1927), The Nature and Destiny of Man, 2 v. (1941 and 1943), and Man's Nature and His Communities (1965).

See Also: niebuhr, helmut richard.

Bibliography: c. w. kegley and r. w. bretall, eds., Reinhold Niebuhr: His Religious, Social and Political Thought (New York 1956). g. harland, The Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr (London 1960).

[w. hayes]

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